The Russian invasion of Ukraine creates both a crisis of confidence in the West and an impression of vitality and strength about the Sino-Russian relationship. However, the impression might be just that — there are several existing and potential wrinkles in the ties that can be hard to smoothen.
First, there is the question of costs to China directly from Russia’s actions. The latter’s support of independence for the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk regions considerably complicates China’s own position vis-à-vis its minority areas such as say, Inner Mongolia whose Mongol majority have ethnic brethren across the border in Mongolia. On the other hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support for the 2014 referendums held by separatists in eastern Ukraine has also raised concerns in China that Taiwan’s pro-independence forces could also a similar tactic — referendums are a common enough feature in Taiwan’s political system, and have been used before for issues skirting dangerously close to what the Chinese might have considered an assertion of independence.
The current Russian campaign might also lead to expectations from elsewhere for China to use its influence to modify Russian behaviour at the risk of suffering some consequences if it did not do so.
China has tried to pre-empt this by reminding everyone “whether it is about the most recent situation or the Crimea issue in the past” that it had “always stayed neutral”. Claims have also been made that China’s relations with the United States and European Union were much broader, and so tensions over Ukraine “would not substantively negatively impact” China’s ties with them.
China has also tried to use the 50th anniversary of US President Richard Nixon’s visit to China to underline that US-China relations could still find a way forward from current tensions. Thus, headlines like ‘China handles complex Ukraine crisis with caution, principle’ urging ‘dialogue and consultation’ will be par for the course.
There are also economic costs. China is Ukraine’s largest trading partner — a position that belonged to Russia until 2019 — and Chinese corn imports from Ukraine are not insignificant. Chinese companies are also likely to be impacted by Western sanctions against Russian entities.
Second, there is the issue of the effect on the bilateral relationship itself.
What might Moscow think about Beijing and its capacities if the latter’s responses are limited to verbal support or is less than unequivocal? Especially, if the current campaign in Ukraine or its consequences were to go badly for the Russians, this might lead to greater demands from Russia for China to stand closer still with it.
From an economic perspective, even though Russia has reduced its vulnerability to Western sanctions since 2014, there remain structural economic weaknesses including dependence on hydrocarbon exports. If oil prices remain low, and the Russian economy flounders this might increase pressure eventually on the Chinese to help out. Already on the eve of the invasion, the two countries were working on an agreement for China to buy 100 million tons of coal from Russia, and hours after the invasion the former publicly announced a previous decision to lift import restrictions on Russian wheat.
However, Russian economic dependency might also be a drag on China since it might not exactly be easy for Beijing to convert this to advantages elsewhere. Having refused so far to directly criticise Russia, China can find its space for manoeuvre limited by still greater expectations from Moscow.
Third, the logic of geopolitical competition is also such that however close China and Russia might be at this moment, they also threaten each other by virtue of the fact that they are neighbours with competing, and overlapping interests in some of the same geographies, and because of the nature of their political systems.
The Russians getting bogged down in Ukraine or failing creates a natural temptation for the Chinese — one they are not in the habit of resisting — to exploit Russia’s distractions with greater ingress in the other traditional sphere of Russian influence, namely, Central Asia — the entire post-Soviet phase in this region is one long example of such ingress. If so, this could lead to a bolstering of Russian suspicions that China’s long-term objective is to undermine their capacity in their common neighbourhood.
Do not forget also that the Russians were involved in trying to mediate between India and China after their border clashes of June 2020. While Moscow was discreet, it signalled an intent to portray that China and India were at par, and that Russia itself was somehow the larger power. For the most part, China’s MOFA has tried to respond to questions on Ukraine by saying, "legitimate security concerns of any country should be respected", and that there was "a complex historical context and complicated factors at play". However, it has also said, “Respect for all countries’ sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity is a basic norm governing international relations. It embodies the purposes of the UN Charter and should be complied with by all sides. This is also China’s consistent and principled position”.
As Shi Yinhong, a prominent international relations scholar at the Renmin University in Beijing, has said, China has significant reservations about Russian behaviour even if these were only "implicitly signalled or indirectly expressed".
Given that the leaderships in both countries need to maintain this impression that their country is the principal pole against the US, and thus a pivotal player in international politics, the more successful the one appears to be in this endeavour, the more image-conscious and worried the other will be about the bilateral balance of power. Therefore, China will be wary of Russian successes in Ukraine, and the confidence this might engender in Moscow. In fact, the Chinese party-state will eventually have its diplomats, analysts, and scholars spin matters in such a way that neither the Russians nor the West come out looking good from this situation.
However it plays out and no matter the nature or results of Western responses, the Ukraine crisis will likely push Sino-Russian ties faster towards a clearer denouement. It might not necessarily be a happy one for either party.
(This is the second of a series of articles focusing on China vis-à-vis the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.)
Jabin T Jacob is Associate Professor, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University, Delhi NCR, and Adjunct Research Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. Twitter: @jabinjacobt. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.